Today marked World Toilet Day. The observance seeks to draw attention to sanitation which has long stood as one of the most pressing challenges India faces when it comes to health and development. In fact, on the Narendra Modi government’s health agenda, sanitation has been a priority. Sustainable sanitation is the need of the hour moving forward.
UN Water outlines the goal of World Toilet Day: to “[celebrate] toilets and raises awareness of the 4.2 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation. It is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.”
This year, World Toilet Day’s theme interlinked with another critical issue facing India: climate change. The theme of the observance in 2020 is “sustainable sanitation and climate change.” UN Water adds
“Climate change is getting worse. Flood, drought and rising sea levels are threatening sanitation systems – from toilets to septic tanks to treatment plants. Everyone must have sustainable sanitation that can withstand climate change and keep communities healthy and functioning. Sustainable sanitation systems also reuse waste to safely boost agriculture and reduce and capture emissions for greener energy.”
In October 2014, LifeWater International noted how “the current global water and sanitation crisis creates a profoundly negative impact on the environment. Water is the fundamental part of ecosystems and everything within a watershed is connected. The connectedness means that the use of a river or aquifer in one area will affect and be affected by its use in another area, even far away.
“When sewage and waste enters a water source, the effects can be geographically widespread. People get sick from drinking the contaminated water or eating the plants and animals that rely on it. In developing nations, approximately ninety percent of sewage and wastewater is emptied into rivers, lakes and nearby streams, polluting some of the same resources which people use as drinking water.”
In India, Health Issues India has reported at length on the need for sustainable sanitation and the impacts of the inadequate supply of safe drinking water. The country has ranked lowly in indexes of water quality and sanitation. The Ganges – or Mother Ganga – is a testament to this crisis. In March 2019, my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote for Health Issues India how “India’s most holy river is simultaneously regarded with the utmost reverence and treated with complete neglect. Huge amounts of sewage and industrial waste spewed into the river have led some studies to suggest that the river will be incapable of hosting life in the near future.”
The Modi administration pledged to make sanitation a priority – and upon assuming power in government, it launched the ambitious programme of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to reduce the rate of open defecation in the country and improve access to latrines for those marginalised and neglected. In many respects, the initiative was a success.
Last year marked the five-year anniversary of Swachh Bharat and the Government’s – and, by extension, the country’s – scorecard looked squeaky clean. It won the acclaim of international observers and government figures indicated impressive progress. “Since October 2nd, 2014, government figures claim that 100,753,274 household toilets have been built; 699 of India’s 731 districts are open-defecation free, covering 599,963 open-defecation free villages; and [the then-]35 states and union territories are open-defecation free,” Health Issues India reported at the time.
However, the scorecard was more mixed than it appeared on the surface. Marginalised populations in India’s caste system suffered coercion. “Commentators have pointed to the failure of the scheme to address the complexities of casteism, identifying this as a major impairment of the scheme in its ability to make a positive and inclusive social impact,” we noted. Furthermore, in areas where latrines were built, behavioural change did not necessarily follow and open defecation continued. As Scroll.in reported, in “several Northern states…nearly one in four – or 23 percent [of] – people in households with latrines continue to defecate in the open…reduction in open defecation did not match the increase in new latrine coverage….more than seventy of the population in the villages that received the programme continued to defecate in the open. Of those households that had improved sanitation facilities, 41 percent still defecated in the open, daily.”
2016 saw the publication of an open letter which described sustainable sanitation as “the need of the hour” in India. “There is a strong need to apply sustainable framework and strengthening capacity building in technological, social, as well as the delivery and monitoring mechanism of sanitation programs in our country,” the letter’s author Manjari Manisha wrote.
In 2020, the situation remains dire. Earlier this year, Down to Earth reported “Indian cities are currently plagued by multiple challenges to water, sanitation and hygiene. At present, 163 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, while 210 million people lack access to improved basic sanitation in India.
“India is currently at the bottom of 122 countries in the Water Quality Index (WQI) — at 120 — with nearly seventy percent of water sources…contaminated. WQI [is] an important tool to determine the drinking water quality in urban, rural and industrial areas.”
The future of Indian health depends on sustainable sanitation. The country has performed well in some areas; in others, not so much. Building on the successes of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and moving forward in a manner that takes care of the country’s water supply, its environment and, of course, its people is a moral imperative.